Distorted Constellations180 Nwando Ebizie credit Anya Arnold


Various Stages | Commissioning

Various Stages Festival 2020 Hildegard: Visions

Nwando Ebizie gives us a glimpse into Hildegard:Visions...

Walsden - a village in West Yorkshire in the Calder Valley.

I am making a large scale operatic retreat. It will last for a day. It will be radically accessible.
It will be a chance to experience the spirit of Hildegard as filtered through my position as a neurodivergent Afrofuturist - a woman of my age.
It will be a ritual experience based on the aforementioned death ritual.
It will be a transformational experience.
It will be a multisensory feast full of song, touch, taste, smell and movement.

A day long ritual experience.
The piece is Hildegard’s life as a constellation viewed from my particular perspective as a Neurodivergent Afrofuturist. Hildegard lives again in new form. Our job, looking back at her in wonder is to consider why she matters now. What can we learn from her visionary creativity?

The audience all begins together and take different journeys, led by a concierge. Through the rich tapestry of Hildegard’s life mirrored through the lens of the Anchorite ritual which she would have done before being interred in the monastery. Thus the audience is immersed in Hildegard and rebirthed through this new ritual. She lights the way.

The only task for those that come to the Hildegard Experience is to find their inner Hildegard and to leave with the same curiosity that propelled her forward to discover, connect with, make and savour life to its fullest.

The inspiration came from me realising I had a rare neurological disorder called Visual Snow.

Put simply, this means that I experience a different perceptual (mostly visual) reality to most people. I explored the neuroscience of perception with my collaborator, Neuroscientist Dr Edward Bracey and thought about how artists throughout history may have approached this unique perceptual reality. Hildegard kept coming up in my mind as a woman who was not only visionary, but also, uniquely for the time, had her visions and creativity immortalised in text. I was interested in the connections between atypical perception and creativity - could a possible neurodiversity lead to seeing the world differently and an enhanced creativity? I spent time reading Scivias (the illustrated work that describes her visions) as well as listening to various different versions of her choral works and her taxonomy writings - Physica.

In Fiona Maddocks book: Hildegard of Bingen: A Woman of her Age, she describes the ceremony anchorites such as Hildegard would have gone through as a child before entering the monastery. It is a death ritual. It includes the funeral liturgy, a section where the child lies on the floor and is covered in earth and leaves and a final section where she is locked into her cell and perhaps chained up, before the congregation depart, singing as they go.

One section is the Extreme Unction - the sacrament of anointing of the sick, especially when administered to the dying.

The idea was that the anchorite was departing this earthly life and was to remain in the monastery.

I was struck by the idea of this child committing to such a profound spiritual quest and what that meant for her ongoing life.

Extreme Unction : a piece for 8 loudspeakers, 3 singers, 2 bodies and water. Nwando Ebizie feat. Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian, Lore Lixenberg and Yfat Soul Zisso.

This would have been the experience (SOUND ON):

You arrive at the ICA. You are directed to the door where this ritual will take place. You are met at the threshold by a woman - the Guardian at the Crossroads. She is wearing an excessively 80s wedding dress. She invites you in with warmth and potential. She sprays the air around with you a citrussy, cleansing spray. You feel the fine mist of water drop around you.

Around her are large bowls of steaming water filled with scents of cedar wood, chamomile, spearmint and frankincense.

You can wash your hands in the bowls. You can refresh your face.

(Obviously in the days of Covid, we would not invite this).

She advises you that you can sit on chairs, lie (on comfortable beanbags) or stand anywhere. This space is here for you.

You feel you are entering a space both sacred and profane. Both of this world and an alternate reality.

Your eyes take a while to adjust.

So first of all, you notice the perfumed air. You have your own associations with the scents drifting around you. Maybe memories surface.

As your eyes adjust you see a shaft of light breaking through the darkness. This lights figures on the stage - three singers. Each dressed in beautiful outfits that you feel somehow suits each of their characters. Each has an individually crafted crown.

You notice that there is the gentle sound of dripping water all around you.

There are loudspeakers surrounding you - creating the sensation that you are bathed in sound.

The sound drifts around the space, as if chasing itself.

It gives the sensation that you are in a hamam - a marble room with a dome where water is dripping. The room has an odd reverb, making you feel like you are not where you are. The water sounds close, almost like it could be touching the back of your neck and sliding down your spine.

Sometimes it sounds like it is water dripping onto hard stone, sometimes a gentle stream falling into a copper bowl.

Eventually you notice a final woman in the shadows – let’s call her The Celebrant. She is dancing with the shadows, she is dancing with the light.

The singers begin to breathe deeply, breathing in the atmosphere.

They dance with the shadows, they dance with the light.

You begin to hear them sing. Softly at first, barely understandable words. Unfamiliar chants. The snatches of song you hear - the words do not matter - what you feel is that they are deeply personal to the singers. Songs that somehow connect with them. Voices that feel intrinsic to them as human beings.

The Celebrant and the Guardian weave their way through the space, coming together on the stage.

They lay out their bowls and jugs of water. The Celebrant bends over her bowl, allows her hair to fall into the steaming water. She undulates her body, swaying from side to side.

The Guardian takes a piece of cloth and carefully washes it, wringing it out again and again into her bowl.

Their movements are precise and soft. Full of meaning but ultimately practical. The sounds they make connect to the sounds of the hamam around you.

You feel that they are preparing for the rites to come.

You feel yourself drifting into a softer state of being. Here but not here. There but not there.

The singer's voices melt into recognisable fragments of Hildegard’s music - ‘Favus Distilans’. Melisma chases melisma, weaving through the air. One singer moves over to a table and places a new crown on her head. She taps the crown intermittently, sending beautifully distorted versions of her voice out into the air.

The singers fall silent. The sound changes - a rhythmic metallic ringing. As if the copper bowl used in the hamam is being played. The Guardian and The Celebrant take their places on small logs and begin to move. By now, maybe you are halfway to dreaming. But you recognise their movements - they are washing, scrubbing their bodies, flinging water onto themselves. Familiar and yet more lyrical. Incredibly frenzied.

The singers begin to cry. Softly, sobbing. Until they wail. The gentle sounds of the hamam build into a waterfall, a whirlpool. The sound moves around you, making you feel dizzy.

The lights fade. There is movement, sound, water and darkness.

And then again, silence.

The shaft of light returns.

You hear last drifts of Hildegard.


I decided that the workshop would be a process that mirrors my end goal of creating a ritual retreat that tries to connect the visitor to spirit of Hildegard.

So I wanted it to be a retreat for the artists involved.

I wanted us to move backwards through ritual time. To return to a mythic time. Retrograde. A life - death - life cycle as explained in ‘Women Who Run with the Wolves’ (Pinkola-Estes). A Dream time. A Refresh. A slowing down.

I wanted us to break away from structures that keep us trapped. I wanted us to open and free our senses.

One of my entry points to engaging with Hildegard is her philosophy of the ‘Virtues’. I wanted to explore this and invited guest leader Jennifer to lead us in a type of guided visualisation into our connection to our own virtues - a journey into the centre of your being. A kind of meeting of Aristotelian and Hildegardian virtues.

Each day was different. We swam in the sea in Aldeburgh. We tried on vintage wedding dresses.

A highlight was Kayaking down the river at Snape Maltings to do field recordings of the water sounds. Absolute bliss.

Another one was creating our own mini Hamam experience in a toilet on site. We somehow managed to create a transformative experience for ourselves.

Musically, working with sound engineer Jon Hart meant that I could create an immersive piece of sound art for 8 loudspeakers and explore the found sound we recorded in our faux hamam and on the river. This drove the improvisations we did with the singers and dancers.

IMG 6174 Various Stages Nwando

I have a strong belief that the process will create the end piece of work. And my main interest is in process towards transformation.

I am only interested in creating work with partners who understand that the art I create must interrogate structural inequalities. That we will create shared experiences and accessible, innovative art. This partner will want to create a bright new dream, a vision of what the future could hold.

Workshop artists
Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian
Lore Lixenberg
Tom Richards
Yfat Soul Zisso
Jennifer MT White

Hildegard: Visions was developed in its early stages during a Residency at Snape Maltings. The Residency programme supports artists and researchers who are in need of development time, are creatively curious, and have exciting, adventurous ideas to explore.

In 2018 Nwando Ebizie took part in the Resonance Residency programme at Opera North. She used this time to develop ideas for Hildegard: Visions. This was the followed by a presentation at King's Place as part of the Tete-a-Tete festival. You can find out more by visiting Nwando's website click here. You can also watch a film of Opera North's 2018 artist residencies here.

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